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James Blackmon

Other Exonerations with False Confessions
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Just before 6:15 a.m. on September 28, 1979, Helena Payton left her sixth-floor dorm room at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina to use the common bathroom. Suddenly, her roommates heard screaming, followed by Payton running out of the bathroom and yelling, “He stabbed me.”

Just then, a man came out of the bathroom’s other exit, walked past several students, went down the stairs and then ran away as a security guard chased him.

Payton, who was 23, had been stabbed in the neck and was bleeding profusely. But she was conscious when she was brought to a local hospital. Just before going into surgery, she told her mother that she had been attacked in the bathroom and that she did not recognize the man who hurt her. Payton went into a coma after surgery and died a month later.

The crime was investigated by the Raleigh Police Department, which scoured the campus and community looking for leads. Witnesses had generally described the man as a tall and thin black male in his twenties, clean shaven with a short afro. In addition, he was said to be wearing a dashiki-style shirt. Within the first few hours of the investigation, police had found a similar shirt, with blood stains, in woods behind the dormitory. A knife was found under a table on the dorm’s first-floor game room. It also had blood stains. There’s no indication that blood typing was ever done to match the blood with Payton.

Despite the police efforts, including substantial publicity and the release of sketches, the investigation stalled. At one point, detectives speculated that Payton may not have been the intended victim, that the women in the dorm might have been involved with drugs or prostitution. The police also appeared to have engaged a psychic, who gave them a composite sketch of a possible suspect. Police questioned a man who fit that composite, but he was released after his fingerprints didn’t match prints left in the bathroom.

In February 1983, a confidential source at Dorothea Dix Hospital, the state’s main psychiatric hospital, called the police and said that a male patient in the McBride Building had been talking about murdering black women, including the killing at St. Augustine’s, which was a historically black college. The source didn’t know the patient’s name, but thought it was possibly “Brammer.” There was no patient at Dix named Brammer, but police eventually realized that the only patient who fit the general description was 28-year-old James Blackmon, who had a lengthy history of mental illness and criminal behavior. He had been cycling in out of reform school, prison, and psychiatric institutions since he was 11. Almost all of that time was spent in Upstate New York, although Blackmon had family in North Carolina. It wasn’t clear when he came south, but records showed he was arrested for larceny in Lumberton, North Carolina at the end of 1980.

Two police detectives, James Holder and Andrew Munday, first interviewed Blackmon on October 25, 1983. He would be interviewed eight times and also have numerous informal conversations with the officers. At one point, Blackmon was put in a lineup but not identified by any of the students. He was never placed in custody, given any Miranda warnings, nor told he was a suspect in a murder investigation. During this time, Blackmon was no longer a residential patient at Dix, although he tried to gain admission one night when it was very cold outside. Instead, he was shuttling between his mother’s house in Lumberton and the streets of Raleigh.

During their conversations with Blackmon, the detectives gained his trust, frequently asking him whether the officers were his friends. He always said they were. Blackmon told the officers that he could levitate, that he was telepathic, and able to control other people’s actions. He said he had killed lots of people. He said he had never killed anyone. He said he didn’t own a dashiki-style shirt. He said he could cause earthquakes. Sometimes, he would wear a Superman cape. The conversations rambled on, with the officers always trying to slowly steer Blackmon to St. Augustine’s and the morning of September 28, 1979. Blackmon would often refer to himself in the second person, someone the officers referred to as “the bad James Blackmon,” who had done bad things. It was often unclear what those bad things were, but during the interviews, the officers kept pushing Blackmon to acknowledge that this bad side had been at the college and killed a student. Most but not all of the interviews were recorded.

On October 26, 1983, he accompanied the officers to the dormitory at St. Augustine’s and entered the bathroom stalls. This trip wasn’t recorded, but the officers said Blackmon stopped at the stall where Payton was attacked and said, “This is where it happened.” Holder asked him what “What happened, James? Where were you?” Blackmon said “I was here and she was there.”

Later that day, he produced something approaching a confession, stating, “I — either he cut her in the woods somewhere where he had her at or either up in that building.”

Despite those statements, Blackmon would not be arrested until December 7, 1983, when he was charged with first-degree murder.

From the beginning, there were questions about the validity of Blackmon’s statements to police, whether they amounted to a confession, and whether they could be used against him in court. On December 9, 1986, after three years in jail awaiting trial, his attorney filed a motion to suppress his statements. He argued that Blackmon had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other personality disorders. His statements to the police had been made “while he was probably incompetent and subject to influence and was not capable of knowing the quality of his statements or the implications.” Two days of hearings were held before Judge Wiley Bowen of Wake County Superior Court, where physicians from Dix and those representing Blackmon testified about his mental condition during the time of the interviews with the police officers.

Bowen denied the motion to suppress on August 31, 1987, adopting the view of a psychiatrist at Dix who believed that Blackmon, although diagnosed with an IQ below 80 and perhaps as low as 69, was a street-wise manipulator and malingerer.

On January 14, 1988, Blackmon pled guilty to second-degree murder with the stipulation that he be allowed to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. That appeal was denied in March 1989. At the plea, Blackmon never directly answered the question of whether he was guilty, and the plea would later be described in appellate briefs as an Alford Plea (allowing him to maintain a claim of innocence while acknowledging the state has sufficient evidence to convict). He was sentenced to life in prison.

During the next 20 years, Blackmon sought assistance from North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services (in 1995) and the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence (in 2008). No official action was taken in either effort, but in 2012, NCPLS submitted Blackmon’s case to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency created in 2006 to investigate and review claims of innocence. By then, there was a greater understanding of the situations and suspects that are most likely to produce false confessions.

The commission’s investigation, which culminated in three days of hearings in November 2018, focused on several areas. First was the question of Blackmon’s mental illness at the time of his conversations with the police.

Although the North Carolina courts had found Blackmon to be competent, Dr. Edward Landis, a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with prisoners, said that Blackmon’s delusions and hallucinations made him a problematic subject for the police. “It’s clear from looking at the batch of documents that are, I think, just transcripts of those tape-recorded interviews that he told the detectives lots of information that might be factually true, but he told them lots and lots of information that was just flagrantly delusional, just craziness.”

Later, during his testimony, Landis said, “So, I’m at a little bit of a loss to know what you would deduce from a mentally ill person telling you something like -- literally, one of the statements was -- when asked, ‘Well, what has the bad James Blackmon done?’ … Mr. Blackmon replied, ‘Murders, hurricanes, and earthquakes.’ So if you know for sure that he can't cause hurricanes and earthquakes, murdering somebody is a possibility -- people have killed one other. So murder is possible. But do you deduce from that that the one item is true and toss out the other two because you know they are the crazy ramblings of Mr. Blackmon?”

Separately, Dr. Allison Redlich, a psychologist and expert on false confessions, testified that Blackmon’s statements to the police were filled with warning signs about their unreliability. She noted that Blackmon had two risk factors for false confessions: mental illness and intellectual disability. Equally important, his statements about the crime contained many mistakes. He gave an incorrect description of the victim, how she was killed and the nature of the crime, including stating that they had had sex before the attack. Redlich also said that Blackmon never provided the officers with new information. Everything he told them, they had told him first. Equally troublesome was that the police had taken Blackmon to the crime scene, contaminating his statements. Munday said that was unusual; this was the first and only time he had done so in his years as an officer.

The commission also examined Blackmon’s whereabouts at the time of Payton’s attack. While he had family in North Carolina, the earliest documentation of Blackmon being in the state is in 1980, when he applied for disability with a Lumberton address. The month before the crime, Blackmon was arraigned in court in Binghamton, New York on a disorderly conduct charge. The month after the attack, he was in the same court when a drug-possession charge was dismissed.

During the initial investigation, the police had been able to lift a fingerprint from the crime scene. While the print was not Blackmon’s, it had remained a mystery for many years. In 2013, the print was matched to a man named James Leach, who died in 2008 and had a lengthy criminal record. The commission wasn’t able to conclude that Leach was involved with Payton’s death, but they also weren’t able to explain how his print was found in the bathroom.

Blackmon was the final witness at the commission’s hearing. He was now 65 years old, trying to remember events from nearly 40 years earlier. He said his mind “comes and goes” because of the medication, but he said he didn’t kill Helena Payton.

Lorin Freeman, the District Attorney for Wake County, argued before the commission that Blackmon had not proven his innocence. She said that the police officers worked hard and fairly on the case, without access to modern forensic tools. “Where there is not clear and convincing evidence of innocence, a conviction should not be disturbed,” she said.

The commission voted unanimously on November 16, 2018 that there was sufficient evidence of innocence to merit a judicial review of Blackmon’s case. A three-judge panel met in August 2019 for three more days of hearings and declared Blackmon innocent on August 22, 2019. He was released from prison to stay with family members.

“Justice delayed is better than no justice at all,” said Jonathan Broun, Blackmon’s lawyer with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. “There’s a problem with how the criminal justice system deals with mentally ill people. It was a problem in the 1980s ... I am concerned that some problems would be repeated.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/3/2019
State:North Carolina
County:Wake
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1979
Convicted:1988
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:False Confession
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No